Battery-electric vehicles will transform the North American auto industry — eventually.
The technology holds the promise of more environmentally friendly transportation with consumers enjoying lower maintenance costs. Someday, if battery costs keep falling, the all-in cost per mile may even be lower.
Regulations around the world are spurring automakers to bring electric vehicles to market well before the economics would lead more than a few shoppers to change their preference away from vehicles powered by gasoline.
Dealers are caught in the middle. Their customers have little interest in actually buying EVs, but their automaker partners need them to at least give it a solid effort. Bottom line: Retailers can't be expected to subsidize these ventures, so they will need significant support from manufacturers to sell and support these very different products.
Volkswagen of America deserves plaudits for recognizing its dealers' plight as the brand prepares to introduce the first of several new BEVs later this year.
The German brand, reinventing itself after the diesel scandal, promised its dealers at the NADA Show last month that it would reimburse up to half of the costs dealers incur to prepare their stores to sell BEVs, paying for things such as engineering, installation of charging stations and service-bay equipment. In addition, Volkswagen told its 650 U.S. dealers that it would help them spur demand with co-op plans that reimburse up to 75 percent of EV marketing costs.
Taken together, the two programs are generous enough to entice VW dealers not just on the coasts but nationally in preparing to retail Volkswagen's coming lineup of ID-family electric vehicles. John Luciano, chairman of the Volkswagen National Dealer Advisory Council, predicted as many as 90 percent of VW dealers would participate.
Volkswagen's approach — and its partnership with its dealers in this endeavor — should be emulated by other automakers preparing to bring their own electric vehicles to the U.S. market. It's not enough to just sell BEVs on the coasts, where it's easier; if these vehicles are to deliver on their environmental promise, they must be available nationwide.
And the only way that works is if automakers sufficiently help dealers prepare and build their own markets locally.